by Lindsay Russell
Politics and Prose bookstore was teeming with politically minded comic lovers on Monday night as they anxiously awaited the arrival of their lifelong hero. Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic strip, was scheduled to speak about his newest book at 7 p.m., but the bookstore’s 150 folding chairs – the maximum number allowed by the fire department – were full by 6:15. By 6:45, rows four or five people deep had formed behind the chairs. By 6:55, bodies flooded the aisles and the space along the walls. The Vietnam Generation had arrived.
Trudeau’s newest book, “#SAD!:Doonesbury in the Time of Trump,” is a collection of his comic strips that chronicle the first 500 days of the Trump presidency, everything from his improbable election to his reckless Twitter habits. It follows Trudeau’s 2016 book, “Yuge!: 30 Years of Doonesbury on Trump,” a collection of older Doonesbury strips that included the controversial New York real-estate mogul long before he considered a run for office.
The framework for Doonesbury was born in the ivy-covered halls of Yale University, where a young Trudeau began a comic strip that chronicled the goings-on of his undergraduate years. Bull Tales satirized the most outlandish campus happenings, including the event in which the president of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, a young man by the name of George W. Bush, was caught branding his pledges.
When Trudeau graduated from Yale in 1970, he continued writing comics but shifted his attention to the national stage. Bull Tales became Doonesbury, which debuted on Oct. 26, 1970, published by the Universal Press Syndicate as a daily strip that appeared in 28 newspapers around the country. The new strip satirized political events and public figures like the Vietnam War, the Watergate Scandal and Nixon’s senior staffers. Doonesbury created characters that represented larger societal movements of the time.
The strip initially portrayed a veteran of the Vietnam War, a newly-liberal feminist who left her husband and children to find herself; hippies; and a counterculture journalist hellbent on saving the world. Trudeau aged his characters in real time. Over the years they grew up, married, had children and settled into careers, just like Trudeau and his readers.
Those very readers who began their journey with Doonesbury as young adults trying to find their place in the world amidst the Vietnam War and the cultural revolution of the early ‘70s have since aged into senior citizenship. The demographics of the crowd at Politics and Prose did not go unnoticed.
“It’s like a Golden Girls convention in here… The median age of this crowd must be 70,” Ried Hiteshew said with a chuckle. Hietschew, who has been reading Doonesbury since he was a child, brought his 10-year-old to the event. For the Hiteshews, Doonesbury has become a family tradition.
As the clock ticked, the minutes pushing closer to 7 o’clock, the anticipation was palpable. Audience members fidgeted as they thumbed through Trudeau’s new book. Politics and Prose was the one and only stop on Trudeau’s “SAD!: Doonesbury in the Time of Trump” book tour. To attend this event was perhaps to attend the only public appearance Trudeau would make for the next several years. He is famous for avoiding the spotlight and instead letting his work speak for him.
“This is Christmas for me,” Cheryl Marquis said as she waited for the talk to begin. “Trudeau really resonated with my generation because of the Vietnam War … He’s a genius.” Marquis was a college student in Pittsburgh when the Vietnam War waged on in the early 1970s. Like most of the audience members, she has been following Trudeau for the last 50 years.
Doonesbury remained a daily strip from its creation until 2013, when Trudeau announced the strip would continue only weekly as a Sunday strip, much to the dismay of his fans. Despite the change, Doonesbury runs in as many as 1,500 newspapers today. Trudeau’s fans are still engaging with his work as passionately as they did when they were 20-year-old college students.
The moment finally arrived. At 7 o’clock, Bradley Graham, the co-owner of DC’s famous bookstore, stood to address the packed bookstore. He opened by reading some of his favorite Trudeau quotes, and the audience roared with laughter.
When Trudeau finally took to the podium, he did so with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eyes. He welcomed the audience, told a few jokes and read the preface to his new book. “If satire has a mission statement … it’s to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” he said, effectively summarizing the goal of his life’s work.
The preface mentions the tendency of Trump supporters to reject political satire. Sometimes people read it, get angry and cling all the more ferociously to their beliefs, Trudeau read on.
“Just because two-fifths of the country are still in the thrall of a humungous con, doesn’t mean that the rest of us – appalled, disenfranchised, writhing in embarrassment for our country – should forgo the comfort of laughter. At this benighted moment, it is all we have,” he read.
His tone was serious, and his words drew murmurs and then applause from a thoughtful audience.
Trudeau then explained that he would not do any more reading. Instead, the event would take the form of a Q&A.
No one needed to hear that twice. Members of the audience climbed over one another to make it to the microphone.
The questions kept coming, one after another, with Trudeau giving generous and thoughtful responses to each person.
Perhaps the most compelling moment of the talk came when Trudeau addressed what he calls “the rot” that he believes has permeated every facet of the executive branch under the Trump administration. The role of the government has been warped in recent years. Trudeau’s guess is that people are going to start to understand how much they need government.
“Public service cannot continue to be reviled the way it is now if we’re going to survive,” he said. The crowd erupted into applause. Attendees looked to each other for a reassuring smile or squeeze of the arm.
In an era of divisive political rhetoric, the generation that came of age during another particularly dark time in our nation’s history looked to the man who had led them through the last 50 years for guidance. They came together, packed in tight at a little bookstore in Washington, to remember that there is still laughter, and there are still things worth fighting for.